You know, sometimes you just need some escapist fantasy about self-discovery in women. McKinley's seventeen-year-old girl Lissar was just the ticket for me last night. Deesrkin is a beautiful, haunting, and sometimes painful coming-of-age story that ends with a message of hope. The first half of the fantasy fiction is really about the traumatic aftermath of a violent assault and rape by the heroine's own father. These dark themes are handled appropriately, realistically, and with great compassion but they do make for some hard reading in the gateway fantasy.
If you have any experience with trauma and/or assault, you'll likely recognize a lot of the ordeals and emotions that our heroine processes in the candid writing style. Lissar/Deerskin survives some intense trauma in the beginning of this distrubing tone - it was hard to read, but McKinley hit the middle ground of being just graphic enough to really impress the horror of the assault on you, without being overly graphic. I think what our woman of steel went through could definitely be triggering, though, so be warned. There's a lot of darkness in this leisurely-paced book and, though beautifully written, absolutely not for the faint of heart. There were a few times where I thought "I'd like to know what happens next, quit with the digression already" but then I got caught up in the digression itself, especially when Lissar was dealing with her shame.
Throughout her suffering, our heroine is supported by her loyal sighthound; her only true friend and family in the lush writing style. The sighthound is possibly a windhund, or long haired whippet, based on the lyrical descriptions, though various covers for this book have shown a greyhound and borzoi, respectfully. Either way, if you have ever had the privilege of living with a sighthound, you will recognize so much of their loyalty, grace, and sweetness in how the book describes the relationship between women and dogs. Lissar's connection to her canine companion is a huge part of what attracted me to this book, and kept me reading through the painful passages of abused women.
The last half of the book is about Lissar healing and joining the world again despite her very painful father/daughter relationship. Of course, dogs are a huge part of this process; bridging the gap between herself freshly healed in the forest and a young prince who loves and understands dogs almost as much as she does. The romantic tone is predictable - I knew where she was going and who she'd fall in love with from the moment she left home - but no less absorbing for that. Her healing and peace is threatened with the return of her father, and the realization that he might soon hurt another young girl like he once hurt her. This spurs Lissar to face her demons and look past the incest and abuse to pull on the strength that was always within her. I honestly found her rising up in protest so powerful; her spirit just burns with the need to protect those who come after her, both emotionally and magically.
The ending is hopeful but makes no foolish promises about men and women relationships. Lissar, like all survivors, is forever changed by her trauma but she is also solely in control of her own destiny, instead of handing it off to the prince. As readers, we are left with a princess who has been through hell and back to come through scarred, but standing, on the other side. Life likely holds moments of pain as her trauma of her previous rape is triggered but it is also full of hope; hope that she can be whole, hope that she will continue to live (not just survive), and hope that she will one day be able to trust another with her whole self (and heart).
Even though parts of this book almost physically hurt to read ( I cried a lot; have tissues at the ready!), it has that soulful, almost nourishing, quality about the resourcefulness of women that so many of McKinley's books convey. She is a supremely gifted writer, and reading this book of what it means to be a true ruler was a privilege. I've read several of McKinley's books - The Hero and the Crown, Pegasus, a few others that show her love of wilderness survival. She is a master of her craft, weaving magical tales that make you really see the world of the character-driven stories. I highly recommend it to those who want a beautiful and complex read about runaways.